Failure is an F-word that we should be hearing more of. That is the refreshing view of the Canadian NGO Engineers Without Borders, which has received praise from around the world for a new project that encourages development organizations to find success by publicly acknowledging, even celebrating, their failures.
It is a concept that should be expanded beyond non-governmental organizations — it is easy to imagine almost limitless applications to the idea that learning from failure is important, from politics and government to business and health to an individual’s daily life.
Failure is common in the realm of foreign development projects and yet, partly because of the nature of foreign aid, the difficulty of the tasks involved, isolation, and the disparate organizations working in international development, failures are not often talked about openly, which increases the chances of them being repeated.
“A mistake is made somewhere in rural Tanzania. It is not publicized — a donor might be upset. Two years later, the same mistake is repeated in Ghana. Six months later in Mali. And so the story continues as it has for over 60 years,” reads the website AdmittingFailure.com,which was launched last month by Engineers Without Borders, in co-operation with Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust and development expert Ian Smillie.
“By hiding our failures,” they say, “we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.”
It is a concept that describes the process of learning — we try and fail, try again with adjustments and try again until we succeed. But when we are afraid to fail, and unlikely to admit it, let alone learn from it, innovation is stifled and thinking becomes safe, almost guaranteeing future failures.
Among failures listed on the website was the construction of a co-op housing project by CARE in Bangladesh. Houses were built, but the co-op, meant to be self-sustaining, failed because “we were in a hurry, we were overconfident, we didn’t have adequate cultural or historical knowledge, and we didn’t do the homework.” wrote Smillie.
The failure project is commendable for a number of reasons. Foreign aid dollars are both desperately needed and increasingly scarce. Repeatedly making the same mistakes suggests there is no accountability for how those dollars are being spent and whether they are having any affect. Understanding failure improves the chances of success down the road.
Understanding failure is crucial in business, too. The tainted meat episode at Maple Leaf Foods and the Gulf oil spill, among other incidents, have underlined how admitting and dealing with failure can make or break a company. The medical profession is encouraging doctors to apologize to patients when they make mistakes.
AdmittingFailure.comincludes this quote from Benjamin Disraeli: “All of my successes have been built on my failures.”
It would be encouraging to see more modern-day politicians learn from their failures. Acknowledging them would be a good place to start.
- Why Children Should be Taught to Deal Constructively with Failure? (socyberty.com)
- Why Is Failure Often a Better Teacher Than Success? (brighthub.com)